Sunday, August 30, 2015

Go Set A Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I must admit that I felt a great deal of trepidation before I finally decided to read Go Set A Watchman. I had heard the leaked reviews that Atticus Finch (the beloved icon of reason and justice in To Kill A Mockingbird) was a racist supporter of segregation in this book. This was hard for me to accept, as much as I admire that character, and as much as I love that book – I’ve read it 30-40 times in my lifetime, and each time I appreciate it more, and get something new out of it. So, it was with trembling fingers that I finally picked it up to read. But it was very much worth it!

First, one must keep in mind that this book isn’t a true sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird – it was submitted to the publisher, who requested that Ms. Lee rewrite it to focus on the character of Scout as a young girl. However, for a fan of Mockingbird, it’s hard to not read it as a sequel – most of the same characters are present (with the notable exception of Boo Radley.) And Scout is very much the same, even though this story takes place about 20 years after the events in Mockingbird. Scout is in her mid-twenties, but is still the impetuous, independent person we saw in Mockingbird. In this new book, she is coming home (from NYC) for a visit with her family and her beau. It is very much a coming-of-age story – even though Scout is an adult – as she is forced to confront some things in her family and in her own life that will truly set her on her feet as her own person.


The first part of the novel feels much the same as Mockingbird – Scout fights with her Aunt Alexandra (that pillar of imperial southern women) just as she did as a child, and her memories of youthful escapades could easily fit into the pages of Mockingbird. Things take a decided turn toward new territory when Scout surreptitiously attends a meeting of the ‘town council’ which Atticus chairs, only to find it is a meeting about how to deal with the ‘black problem’ – complete with a racist speaker who calls Negroes sub-human. Scout is beyond stunned, as she remembers the time that Atticus defended a Negro against a rape charge, and won on appeal (another difference from Mockingbird) and she remembers that he always treated Negroes with respect, when most other people didn’t. And not only is Atticus there, but so is her boyfriend, whom she had been thinking of marrying.

Angry, shocked and confused, she goes to her Uncle Jack (Atticus’ brother) to tell him what she saw. Here she doesn’t find the comfort that she thought she would, and she leaves as angry as she arrived. She finally confronts Atticus, with accusations of racism and bigotry, and he doesn’t defend himself. This is probably the hardest part for a Mockingbird lover to read – Atticus speaks about the “black problem” and the “meddling” of the NAACP, and he constantly refers to the Negro community as “children” who need the guidance of white people. His only response to Scout’s accusations is “I love you.”

Still not knowing what to think, she returns to Uncle Jack, where he confronts her with the revelation that she must be her own conscience (the “watchman” of the title) and not rely on Atticus to be her moral compass. She must fully grow up and become her own person.

Overall, the book was not quite as good as Mockingbird (but what is?), though I still think it has merit on its own. The point of the book – to learn to be your own person – is relevant to everyone, and the issue of racism and bigotry is, sadly, still one we must confront. I think it serves as a great adjunct to its ‘big brother’ and I enjoyed my visit back to Maycomb, Alabama. And, speaking as a true fan of Mockingbird, I’m glad I read it and I don’t feel as if it has spoiled the image of the Atticus I know and love.

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